From the Washington Times: Yemen’s descent into political chaos makes it the latest Mideast nation too dangerous for U.S. officials to operate in — a development intelligence sources say will dangerously limit America’s ability to track and target al Qaeda and other extremist terror movements in the region.
While some Obama administration critics see the military triumphs of Shiite Muslim Houthi rebels in Yemen as a victory by the region’s Shiite powerhouse, Iran, others say the more dangerous fallout will be the loss of real-time intelligence and on-the-ground assets following the withdrawal of U.S. special forces from a Yemeni air base that has long played a key role in the battle against Sunni extremist al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Yemen is the home base of the Sunni terrorist group, which U.S. intelligence officials have described as the most likely among jihadi organizations around the world to “attempt transnational attacks against the United States.”
Despite the value of the base, the administration ordered the pullout of all U.S. forces from Yemen’s Al Anad air base on March 20 after AQAP forces and aligned tribal fighters briefly took control of the nearby city of Houta.
While military and intelligence officials are mum on the role the base has played in hundreds of drone strikes carried out against AQAP operatives during recent years, the sudden American pullout underscores the extent to which the administration’s counterterrorism strategy has collapsed in the region.
A year ago, President Obama pointed to Yemen as a model for his strategy and a success story in the counterterrorism fight.
Now the nation fits into a pattern in which the administration has similarly withdrawn officials from Syria and Libya — two other nations that have degenerated into breeding grounds for groups like AQAP and the Islamic State.
While sources told The Washington Times on Tuesday that there remains a clandestine and active U.S. intelligence presence in all three nations, analysts and former officials described the situation as dire.
“U.S. counterterrorism efforts right now are in serious jeopardy because of the situations in Libya, Yemen and Syria and the absence of any kind of a serious U.S. presence, particularly a military presence, on the ground,” said Seth G. Jones, the director of the RAND Corporation’s International Security and Defense Policy Center.
‘Lower level of knowledge’
Former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, who writes an occasional opinion column for The Washington Times, said the closure of U.S. embassies and removal of U.S. personnel is making it far more difficult for Washington to engage with local populations in each country — a key underpinning of the Obama administration’s overall counterterrorism strategy.
When the American “footprint on the ground goes away, we just have a lower level of knowledge of the situation,” Mr. Hayden told lawmakers during a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing on Tuesday. He added that, “We appear to be a nation in retreat when we take these kinds of steps.”
One intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, rejected the idea that U.S. military and intelligence assets have suddenly lost the capability to direct drone strikes or launch major operations against terrorists because of the pullout from Yemen.
At the Pentagon, however, officials suggested that the decision to pull U.S. forces from the Al Anad air base could be devastating.